Behind the scenes at The Ashton Lancaster
- Credit: Archant
After a hatful of awards, one of Britain’s most luxurious guest houses is now on the market
When the guests coming up the drive include members of a royal family from the Middle East, an official of the Russian government and three armour-plated black Mercedes carrying an 18-year-old girl with an awful lot of luggage, you know this must be a special place.
Alex Polizi would agree. TV’s The Hotel Inspector described The Ashton, on the outskirts of Lancaster, as ‘the most stylish B&B in the country.’
At the door, ready to greet those guests, is James Gray who quit his career in film and television to open a guest house in a splendid late Georgian pile called Well House.
For James, now 43, it was a homecoming. ‘I left Lancaster when I was 16 and, like a lot of kids of that age, I said I was never coming back,’ he laughs. ‘But I did come back and now I love it.
‘The city has changed so much since I first lived here – the university has grown and it has had a lovely influence on the city. It has softened it.’
Sadly for James, he is about to bid farewell for a second time. ‘My husband, David, has had a promotion at work so we need to be nearer to London,’ he says. ‘I will be sad to go. It’s funny having to give up doing something you are quite good at.’
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Quite good is something of an understatement. The Ashton was best B&B in the Visit England Awards in 2013 and The Sunday Times named it in its top six boutique B&Bs. A Daily Telegraph review said: ‘The Ashton continues to set the standard.’
James and David took over the house in 2008. It wasn’t a wreck but it had been empty for quite a while, having gone from being a home to offices and then a restaurant.
‘The lay-out of the house was all a bit disjointed,’ says James. ‘The place was cold and seemed to be held together by woodchip. There was Laura Ashley wallpaper everywhere, dado rails and a great deal of pink and peach.
‘We arranged a complete renovation including new central heating and rewiring and we opened for business six months after getting the keys.’
With six luxurious en suite bedrooms, the house swiftly gain a reputation for top quality accommodation, friendly service and easy rail and motorway links. Brilliant breakfasts also brought much praise along with sumptuous high teas at weekends.
Eventually, they built a home of their own nearby. ‘The plan at the moment is to keep that but if someone came up with the right offer we would listen,’ says James, who has Ashton House on the market with Fine & Country Lakes and North Lancs at a guide price of £750,000.
James learned how not to run a hospitality business by living in hotel rooms during a career working in television and film creating sets for anything from period dramas to Hollyoaks and Eastenders. It began while he was working as a waiter in a café. A crew arrived to film Hetty Wainthropp, the BBC series about a Lancashire housewife turned detective.
‘They were often in the café asking where they could find this or that item for a particular shot…anything and everything including a cage for a monkey. I knew where to find a lot of it and in the end I asked them to give me a job.’
It was the start of a career as a set dresser and it took him around the world. But he eventually tired of life in chain hotels and toyed with the idea of running his own place. His mum, who lived in Lancaster before moving to Kendal, spotted that Well House was on the market. ‘It was completely hidden from the road and the garden was like a rainforest surrounded by Leylandii,’ says James.
The land here was originally a farm and the current house was built in the early 1800s. However, there is known to have been activity on the site since at least the 12th century including a church. In the cellar of the house is a rather sulphurous water supply known as St Mary’s Well, hence the name.
‘We had been think of a place with a couple of extra letting rooms – what they used to call digs. When this came up. It was a big scary project, much more than I’d planned to do.’
The interior of the guest house is certainly memorable. The decor was inspired by an artist called Norman Wilkinson who created many of those striking and very collectable railway posters of the steam age.
‘His colour palate tended to be dark and moody with deep greens and brilliant blues – real contrasts. My desire was to create something that was the antithesis of what people imagine of when they think of a B&B – darker, more masculine.’
With GB Antiques on his doorstep and the Standfast & Barracks textiles business in the city, he didn’t need to look too far to furnish the property. However, it wouldn’t take too much effort to turn it back into a family home.
That would be a pity because with the university on its doorstep, the growth of ‘staycations’, so many developments in Lancaster and the Eden Project plans for nearby Morecambe, this could just be a good time to be running a B&B here.